Bienvenue à Versailles: At the Met
The Metropolitan Museum of Art had its origins in Paris in the year 1866. It was then that a group of Americans, having visited the Louvre and Versailles determined to create ‘a national institution and gallery of art to bring art and art education to the American people.’ And so it was that the museum took root. Surely, those foresighted men would be delighted to see what their efforts have brought about: Met Fifth, Met Cloister and now Met Breuer.
Acknowledging that debt, the museum has mounted a stunning show, Visitors to Versailles 1682-1789, which offers a chance for museum-goers to see for themselves what it was that charmed and enthralled Americans who went abroad in the nineteenth century, inspiring them to do likewise. Paris was (and is) galvanizing.
A Founding Father who went abroad as the ambassador of the young United States was Benjamin Franklin who, despite his wife’s entreaties and those of Adams and Jefferson, stayed in Paris for more than ten years, much feted and fussed over by the ladies of the French court. Normally, one of the first things a man would do upon reaching Paris, knowing the French fondness for elegant finery, would be to find himself a good tailor. But not Ben Franklin, who can be seen below wearing plain serviceable garb, with nary a ruffle or a powdered wig in sight. As befits the author of Poor Richard's Almanack who penned: A penny saved is a penny earned.
In the photo to the left is the young Louis XV who, at the age of five, would succeed his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, to become King of France in 1715. In the center a porcelain by Charles-Gabriel Sauvage, 'The Figure of Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin, 1780-1885,' which serves as the Met's poster for the exhibit. And to the right, our Ben.
What was it like to visit Versailles?
Resplendent with exquisite furniture edged with gold, with full-length mirrors and light-filled rooms, Versailles was surrounded by breathtaking gardens which included a menagerie. All of it the dream of King Louis XIV who reigned from 1643 to his death in 1715. During this time, his architects, stonemasons, landscape designers and gardeners labored mightily to turn what had been a family hunting lodge on the outskirts of Paris into the magnificent palace of Versailles, the likes of which no one had seen. Once there, you would enter through the reception room which can be seen below, to be met by guards dressed in ceremonial attire. It was splendid.
How did one travel to Versailles?
Of course, you could go by coach, but with all the jostling, the ride was uncomfortable. Instead you might want to take a boat, which ‘at the cost of four sols per person in 1716,’ was the least expensive option. From Pont Royal on the Seine, a barge would leave at eight in the morning for Saint-Cloud or Sevres. According to the British travel-writer Sacherverell Stevens, after landing at either port it was a ‘most delightful walk to Versailles.’
Is that the King of France?
Before the expansion of the palace, the royal gardens designed by André Le Nôtre in the 1660s had been the main attraction. All visitors to Versailles could tour not only the gardens, but the Hall of Mirrors and the state rooms. The apartments of the royal family and the king's mistress were accessed only by special permission, but such access was not unheard of and those who obtained it were dazzled.
It wasn’t the royal palace and gardens alone that visitors flocked to see. Unlike royalty elsewhere, the King of France in keeping with tradition remained highly accessible to his subjects. Travelers would comment that when touring the grounds of Versailles, they had passed the king or the queen taking a stroll. Or that when visiting the Hall of Mirrors, they saw the monarch walking through the reception room on his way to daily mass.
This accessibility astounded visitors who, like the king’s subjects, delighted at catching glimpses of him as he went about his daily rituals. Of course, religious holidays and special occasions were celebrated with great panoply attracting hordes of on-lookers.
So great was the power and prestige of King Louis XIV that he was variously known as Louis the God-Given (Louis Dieudonné), Louis the Great (Louis le Grand) or the Sun King. If you have never visited Versailles, if you have never walked with kings, now is the time to do so. And while doing so you might want to collect a souvenir or two, as did visitors to Versailles. When, for example, the king of Sweden visited, he was gifted with a 600 piece service of porcelain gilt with gold, similar to that in the center photo below.
But you need not feel neglected, for you can shop for Versailles-inspired pieces at store.metmuseum.org. There are lovely French silk scarves with floral motifs, bangles with details taken from objects in the exhibit, and even a hand-painted tote bag hand-stitched for the Met ($235).
A Few Final Thoughts
At that, I'm going to leave you to your shopping and bid you adieu. Hope to see you back next week when I'll have the coffee ready. Speaking of coffee, a Bernardaud cup meant for a king without a saucer sells for $150, and a saucer without a cup for $75. As for a coffeepot? $830. And the flute chiller to hold your champagne glasses? A cool $2,115. For that 'please see an associate for assistance.' The instructive exhibition, which runs through July 29, was organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Palace of Versailles.
If you enjoy reading posts on art or discovering what's happening at the various museums, be sure to try 'Browse by Category' on the website. This is a new feature, and I'd like to know what you think of it. If you have a moment, take a look and leave me a comment, Merci fois mille.
By the way, if you like historical Netflix productions, do yourself a favor and watch 'Versailles.' Half-way through it, I'm astonished to find that King Louis XIV survived all the intrigues, liaisons, murders, poisonings and diabolical plots hatched at Versailles. Until we meet again mes amis, may life be good to you.